Study Guide

Peter DeVries

Peter DeVries Essay - Critical Essays

DeVries, Peter

Introduction

DeVries, Peter 1910–

DeVries is an American novelist, short story writer, poet, and editor known for his witty caricatures of upper middle-class American life. Raised in a strict Dutch Calvinist home, DeVries often combines comedy with religious and moral questions to create social satire with pessimistic, tragic under-currents. Melvin Maddocks has called his work "Kafka crossed with the Keystone Kops." DeVries employs farce, parody, burlesque, and, especially, puns in his novels of manners. Several of his works have been adapted for film and stage. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)

D. Keith Mano

DeVries' writing is forty years old—Benchley, Woollcott, immature Kaufman—it dates from humor columns in the Evening Mail. And, when he isn't indulging in long words, modifying his modifiers, DeVries will preposition and pronoun and article you to death…. DeVries writes as grad students in sociology write: for other grad students in sociology. Enough to syntax anyone's patience.

Let me use DeVries' prose style: it's a serviceable metaphor: it apes his comic formula. Nouns exist for their adjectives: so, too, protagonist for cameo walk-ons; plot for digressions. The orgy scene [in I Hear America Swinging], say, is less momentous than one of its dangling participants: for example, DeVries' hunky woman wrestler, who will attack an orgasm as she would a pin. This is the nature—one nature, anyhow—of comedy: reemphasis, misemphasis. A bridge in DeVries' plot will be written cursorily—like those pronoun—article—preposition sentences—to get it out of the way. Which is why authors prefer black comedy. Not because they're morose by disposition, but because white or pure comedy is, no contest, the most exacting art form. A dull scene in black comedy might pass for one with some sort of opaque significance. In white comedy you can be too damned good for your own good. A real knee-slapper on page ten will orphan page nine and page eleven. Critics love the word "uneven"; its their favorite put-down. A white comic has...

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Max Byrd

The Mackerel Plaza … is at once Peter DeVries' funniest and most characteristic novel, the loveliest jewel in the whole remarkable strand of his achievement. Immensely successful among mere readers, DeVries' work has been conspicuously overlooked by academicians and by the more solemn ideologists of contemporary literature. What he offers, however, that is missing from such celebrities as Thomas Pynchon or John Hawkes are modesty, humor, warmth, intelligibility. What he may be thought to lack in comparison is high seriousness (and perhaps a certain gratuitous obscurity). Like all genuinely funny writers, DeVries lulls our critical instincts. Nonetheless he projects a vision no less complete, no less interesting, no less insistent for being also comic.

The opening of The Mackerel Plaza, for example, sets briskly in motion a number of themes—the forward-thinking, back-sliding minister; the collision of literary styles like billboards and sermons; the irritably rational communication of males undercut by women; the displacement of religious values by what he elsewhere calls "Freudianity"—and as the book proceeds, we realize, they continue to swim mysteriously in and out of view, circling constantly and effortlessly, like fish in a bowl. Most followers will recognize these themes as typically DeVriesian…. Where Thurber's women loom menacingly above his cowering males, shrewish commandos dressing down the craven-hearted, DeVries' women dominate more subtly. They allure, they fascinate, they contrive. Emphatically sex objects—" She was naked except for skin, blouse, underthings, stockings, and shoes," Mackerel observes—they provoke his men to involuntary, fatalistic wooing, and the plots of his novels tend to suggest Walpurgisnacht in suburbia, an off-beat but rhythmical dance of approaches and retreats.

His men like to court with language. Parodies, quotations, aphorisms are their plumage, and everyone thinks of DeVries' novels first in terms of their wisecracks: "She was a thin, frail bulldozer of a woman." "Horticulture is nine-tenths destruction." "He's one of those doctors...

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William B. Hill

Peter DeVries has a talent which is almost unique, a talent which has made him the cleverest parodist of our time: the ability to put on those mental characteristics which give a writer or performer his style. He exhibits this talent for many pages at the beginning of [Madder Music] as his protagonist, Robert Swirling, suffers under the delusion that he is Groucho Marx—well, suffer is scarcely the word, since Swirling finds the life of Groucho most congenial. Eventually, he is cured—and when circumstances drive him into a relapse, he reappears not as Groucho but as W. C. Fields.

In between the marvelous imitations runs the story of Swirling's chaotic life. The redemptive force saving him from his first aberration is also the force which drives him into his relapse. Like other DeVries heroes, he is drawn from a splendid wife into a series of awkward adulteries which destroy his marriage. The incidents are not so humorous as the near-misses of the early DeVries novels; Swirling is sometimes too pitiful to be laughable….

There are no cosmic overtones such as one has come to expect of DeVries, except in some slick summaries of attitudes towards sin. Yet there is much deft irony as the author lands his hero in one ludicrous situation after another, each of them showing one of the little follies which men take seriously. The book is slightly painful in that Swirling is ultimately frustrating: the reader must sympathize with him, and he turns out to be utterly ineffectual.

Here, as elsewhere, DeVries lets the reader look through his cold and penetrating gaze; the vision is clear, funny, and a little frightening. (p. 339)

William B. Hill, in Best Sellers (copyright © 1978 Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), February, 1978.

Stuart Sutherland

The opening chapter of Madder Music … is as sustained a piece of comedy as anything DeVries has ever achieved. His effects cannot properly be conveyed by quotation since the dazzling edifice he builds depends upon his unique capacity to pile one witticism precariously on top of another. Like Oscar Wilde he believes a good remark is worth repeating, but there is enough fresh material for the reader to overlook such lapses as "she was one of those women you don't give a book because they've already got one". Just occasionally he reveals too much of the stage machinery: a character called Betty Tingle remarks to the hero as he fondles her breasts "You're making Betty Tingle"—worth it for the triple entendre?

Madder Music is the story of the events that forced the hero to escape into the character of Groucho Marx. DeVries makes play with those reversals of the natural order of things that occur so often in everyday life…. As in his previous novels, DeVries delivers numerous homespun insights … into the curious workings of the human mind: they are always expressed with deft economy—"nothing will make a man a model husband faster than infidelity."

DeVries's satire is as accurate as ever: he successfully derides many contemporary American institutions, including modern art, psychiatry, the real estate business and of course current sexual mores. But his satire lacks passion—and one suspects he would...

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